Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real packed the Varsity Theater for a Wednesday night show on the campus of the University of Minnesota. While initially gaining recognition as Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas has proven himself to be an accomplished songwriter and musician on his own merit and his band, Promise of the Real (POTR), have been together for ten years now. While, I’m not a country music fan, Nelson’s music is still up my alley with an enjoyable blend of rock ‘n roll, blues, Americana, and country. Certainly, his involvement in co-writing eight songs for last October’s A Star Is Born, coaching Bradley Cooper, and leading POTR for their role as Cooper’s (Jackson Maine) backing band in the movie have expanded his following. This sold out weeknight show was proof of that.
The opening act tonight was the Austin, Texas band, Los Coast. They brought their funky, pop sound to the Varsity Theater, highlighted by the gruff, soulful voice of singer Trey Privott and guitar playing of co-founder John Courtney. Megan Hartman added plenty of energy with her funky bass lines and Damien Llanes, drums, and Natalie Wright, keys, completed this five-piece. Los Coast recently released their debut album, Samsara, in June. Their fast moving “Monsters” might be their most danceable song, but my personal favorite was called “(Everything But) The Kitchen Sink”. It blended some rapping with their funky 70’s sound for really unique combination. The half-dozen songs featured in their strict 30-minute opening set proved they are great live performers whose debut album is worth a listen.
Taking the stage a few minutes after the posted 9pm start time, Lukas Nelson produced a real excuse for starting a little late. No, not technical issues. They all had to pee, and there was just one bathroom. Before playing any music, he made a point of recognizing a few of his crew with Twin Cities ties: Corey Carlson, their tour manager, and Ryan Guanzon, their sound guy (and frontman of Late Night Fights). Also, thanking their bus driver, he told us their tour bus parked out front of the Varsity has logged 1.5 million miles on tour. Wow! Saying he sometimes feels like the captain of the starship when they are on tour, Nelson started with the song he said he wrote about aliens, “Entirely Different Stars.” Opening with a song not even played the night before in Milwaukee, signaled a complete shake-up of their previous show’s set-list. As you know, even straying one song from the pre-defined list is rarely seen in this era of cookie-cutter performances. In fact, Milwaukee did not hear the first four songs played tonight in Minneapolis.
After tipping his hat to acknowledge the applause, Nelson next played his 2014 upbeat blues number, “Living It Up”, with its important message, “And if you don’t love yourself, you’ll never love nobody else.” The 30-year-old frontman told us the next song was “Die Alone” and simply added, “I hope I don’t.” Getting warm, Nelson shed his jacket, exposing a red and black lumberjack flannel and said this would be a song he hasn’t played in a while from their second self-titled record (yes, they have two self-titled albums). It was “Runnin’ Shine”, a more old-school song about his grandfather and with vocals so remindful of his father, Willie.
Upon starting their fifth song of the night, Nelson abruptly halted, saying, “We need to fix this feedback issue. It’s not only a show tonight, we are recording this.” With the issue quickly corrected, they resumed “Four Letter Word” from both their 2010 and 2017 versions of self-titled albums. Nelson and bassist Corey McCormick bounced around stage on this one with Nelson raising up four fingers as fans sang along, “Forever is a four letter word.” The band got quieter, and quieter as Nelson was featured on guitar, then grew louder and louder to conclude. Making sure to note all the members POTR several times, he introduced bassist McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, and multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz, who he describes as a well-oiled machine.
“This is a song about my hometown, Austin, Texas, or just outside of it,” Nelson told us, about the reminiscent “Just Outside of Austin”. He raised his fist when he sang, “A little bit of weed and I’m okay.” Pausing briefly before resuming, he demanded, “I want a much larger cheer for weed! It’s a good thing. it’s medicine, that’s all it is. I think it’s happening in this town too.” After mixing in a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”, Nelson threw away his hat, like a frisbee, clapping quickly above his head to get the crowd to join him. With this, we first heard material from their new album, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden). The next five songs would be from the album, beginning with the infectious “Bad Case”, describing “A bad case of wanting what you can’t have, must be a terrible feeling.”
“We have a cool thing coming out,” Nelson announced. “It’s a stripped-down version of the 29 songs we recorded in our session (for the album). We are calling it the “Naked Garden”. Being a self-anointed traveling ambassador for Farm Aid, Nelson asked their tour manager, Corey, to come on stage and share his research on where in the Twin Cities we can buy produce grown by local farms. The 34th annual version of Farm Aid was recently held at nearby Alpine Valley and featured Nelson’s 86-year-old father, along with John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and many others helping to raise funds. Lukas was also there of course, as well as his brother Micah for a true family event.
For the new album, Nelson had to select just a dozen songs to include from those 29 session-tracks. He would next feature the song that they would select for the record’s title, “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)”. Originally thinking they would name the album after another of its songs, “Civilized Hell”, they decided the eventual moniker spoke to the point they are trying to make: We all need to put down our phones and quit wasting time following all of the bad news. Instead, go do something “real” and make a difference. Even if it’s as simple as building your own garden. “Maybe I’ll turn off the f…ing news!” Nelson shouted as he launched into the title track.
“Where Does Love Go” sounded as “Willie Nelson” as any of Lukas’ songs but also unique. Dedicating “Civilized Hell” to his mother and all the badass women in his life, Nelson asked the crowd to help him and yell when the song says to. When it first reached that point, the house lights went on to highlight the crowd, and did so in each instance.
The shout of “1, 2, 3” kicked off the band’s most rocking song of the night. It was also the final song this evening from the new album. Perhaps “Something Real” also gained some consideration for the album title, as it really represents what Lukas Nelson and his band are all about: Genuine songwriting and real, live music. The energy of “Something Real” got bodies moving and the singer/guitarist even showed off by playing the guitar with his mouth. We would learn “(Forget About) Georgia” was written after breaking up with a girl named Georgia and struggling to forget about her because his band played “Georgia On My Mind” every night.
“We had so much fun on the movie A Star Is Born.” Nelson shared. “I wrote this song just before that. Stefani (Lady Gaga) sang background on it. Tonight, we will need your help.” “Find Yourself” proved to be the most well-known to the mostly middle-aged crowd tonight. The long-haired singer was fully immersed in it, singing soulfully and then falling dramatically to the stage a few times. He also used some quiet screams for effect before enlisting the fans to help sing. The ladies were especially anxious to pitch in, so when he asked just the girls to sing, there was no hesitation. When asking the guys to give it back to them, a deep-voiced Nelson and McCormick’s bass assisted the reluctant men. Of course, he gave the girls one more chance to shine, asking them what they had to say to that. Then Nelson took over again, concluding with his most passionate Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired blues-guitar solo.
The final song of their generous main set began with a simple, yet powerful 4-note riff. These ringing tones signaled the gospel-inspired blues/country/rock ballad, “Set Me Down on a Cloud”, meaningfully written for a friend who lost their child in a tragic accident. When the song seemed over, those same 4-notes and a drum lick, re-energized things for another impressive guitar solo and a concluding band jam. After a stage bow, the band didn’t exit. Instead, Nelson said, “We have one more for you. This is a song I wrote a long time ago, when I was 17 or 18.” The familiar acoustic guitar melody guiding “All the Pretty Horses” and then driving it home with more boisterous electric guitar, made fans feel lucky to hear this encore song tonight. While he had said “one more”, Nelson looked at his bandmates and they all nodded in agreement as they also played their blues version of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” to close out the show. The classic song goes, “The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.” Tonight, the night life at the Varsity Theater was the good life. It was real life.
Entirely Different Stars / Living It Up / Die Alone / Runnin’ Shine / Just Breathe / Bad Case / Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) / Where Does Love Go / Civilized Hell / Something Real / (Forget About) Georgia / Find Yourself / Set Me Down On A Cloud. Encore: All the Pretty Horses / Night Life.